December 8, 2023

The Saturday Profile: For Wolfgang Schäuble, Seeing Opportunity in Europe’s Crisis

WHERE the world finds only chaos and impending disaster in the European debt crisis, Wolfgang Schäuble sees the long-awaited urgency to finish the half-complete job of unifying Europe. As Germany’s finance minister and a close confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel, he is in a uniquely powerful position to shape the outcome.

Yet it is something of a miracle that Mr. Schäuble is in the German government at all. His health has been an issue since Oct. 12, 1990, the day a would-be assassin shot him, paralyzing his legs and confining him to a wheelchair from that point forward.

His troubles did not end there, however. As recently as May 2010, on his way to Brussels for an emergency meeting of European Union finance ministers, Mr. Schäuble (pronounced SHOY-bluh) found himself in the intensive care unit of a Belgian hospital, battling complications from an earlier operation.

At that point, with the German news media speculating about his resignation, and even his chances of survival, he phoned Mrs. Merkel to discuss his future.

AS the early sunset of a Berlin autumn evening darkened his office, Mr. Schäuble, 69, recalled asking Mrs. Merkel if he could have until the end of the week to see whether he could regain enough strength to return to work. “She said she found that to be the wrong question entirely. I should take the time I needed to get better,” Mr. Schäuble said. “She said she needed me and she wanted me. End of discussion.”

It proved to be a wise decision. Mr. Schäuble’s experience has been crucial to Mrs. Merkel as she has tried to hold the line between European partners demanding Germany’s financial assistance and angry voters who do not want to pay off the debts of their profligate southern neighbors. And political analysts say Mr. Schäuble was indispensable in holding together the conservative bloc in the vote over expanding the European rescue fund, the bailout fund meant to help heavily indebted euro-zone nations like Greece, which had evolved into a de facto vote of confidence for Mrs. Merkel’s crisis management.

Mr. Schäuble recalled the palpable fear at a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers in Washington in September, held the week before the vote on the rescue fund was scheduled. “You should have felt it,” he said he told his party’s parliamentary group upon his return. “We carry not only responsibility for ourselves. We are also responsible for the development of the global economy.”

Mr. Schäuble, his hair white and a little sparse, the hint of gravel in his voice, is the oldest member of Mrs. Merkel’s cabinet, the last born before the end of World War II and a throwback to pro-European conservatives like Helmut Kohl, under whom he was chief of staff. A campaign finance scandal forced him to step aside in 2000 as chairman of the Christian Democratic Union in favor of the young East German politician Angela Merkel, whom he had put forward as the party’s general secretary less than two years earlier.

NOW, for the second time in his career, Mr. Schäuble finds himself loyally serving a chancellor. He was a whiz at math as a boy but studied law, eventually earning a doctorate. He was just 30 when he entered the Bundestag, with an eye fixed on the chancellery.

But over the years, with the shooting, the scandal and Mr. Kohl’s lengthy tenure — some say his refusal to give way to his presumed successor — Mr. Schäuble evolved from an ambitious young politician to an elder statesman beyond worrying about his political future. “If it puts him in a bad light, but it’s good for Germany, he’ll do it,” said Fred B. Irwin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, who has known Mr. Schäuble for 25 years.

That, observers say, has given him the freedom to pursue an agenda even more pro-Europe than Mrs. Merkel’s. “Under Merkel he’s developed an extremely independent role,” said Ulrich Deupmann, author of a biography of Mr. Schäuble. Or as the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper put it this year: “The finance minister is his own chancellor.”

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